Whether you teach in a public school with high-stakes yearend tests as your guidepost or a school with the College Board Advanced Placement program and AP tests as your guidepost, teaching to a test is a limited way to engage students in the learning process. In fact, it is probably safe to say that teaching to a test is one of the least effective ways to help students see the value of lifelong learning and prepare them for the world they will inherit. Kelly Gallagher, in her recent commentary in Education Week, November 17, 2010, Why I Will Not Teach to the Test, gives a convincing argument for why teaching to a test “ensures mediocrity.”
She points out that in the standards-driven culture of public schools, it is nearly impossible for a teacher to teach for deeper understanding. On Edutopia’s website, there is an interesting article about the value of inquiry-based teaching and cooperative learning as methods that build deeper understanding in the learning process. Darling-Hammond and Barron point out that, “a growing body of research demonstrates that students learn more deeply if they have engaged in activities that require applying classroom-gathered knowledge to real-world problems. Like the old adage states, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.”
Gallagher points out that there are too many standards to teach in a typical school year and the high-stakes test is not designed to reward deep understanding of a standard. The same problem exists for AP teachers, who consistently complain that there is too much content to teach in a normal school year of 170-190 days. This is particularly true of AP courses that are content-driven, like the AP science and AP history courses. With all the content to cover, it becomes nearly impossible to help students develop an appreciation and deeper understanding of the important content embedded in the standards.
She writes, “it is important to note that the standards are not the problem. We all want standards that set high expectations for our children’s learning. The problem is there are too many standards.” p.36 The task for educators is to deconstruct the standards, make wise decisions about what standards are required, and then design stimulating lessons that encourage students to explore the content using 21st Century skills. The challenge facing teachers is that high-stakes tests cover all the standards and so they feel the pressure to cover all of them and teach in “shallow” ways so that students are “prepared.”
In their study concerned teaching for depth versus breadth, Marc Swartz, et.al. discovered that students performed at a higher proficiency in college-level science classes when their high school science courses were based on some in-depth coverage of concepts versus broad coverage of many concepts. They conclude that the deeper understanding coming from mastery of fewer concepts pays dividends in the long run. Students tend to be more successful in the learning environment when they cover concepts in a way that facilitates deeper understanding, as well as promotes application of the knowledge they master.
Gallagher discusses how important it is to have students write to express their understanding of concepts. Since high-stakes tests rely heavily on multiple choice testing, she argues they are an inadequate vehicle for measuring students’ deeper understanding of concepts. I would offer the following observation that unless we are disciplined to change the culture of accountability from high-stakes multiple choice testing to a more flexible and varied approach to testing for deeper understanding of standards, our students will be inadequately prepared for higher education, but more importantly, the world of complex problem-solving in the 21st Century workplace. I think Gallagher would agree.
Finally, I would argue that most teachers will need effective, targeted professional development to prepare the kinds of assessments, both formative and summative, that mirror what will be expected of them in the workplace. Authentic assessments based on “real world” applications of the knowledge students master are not necessarily easy to design and implement. In addition, teachers will need some support and training to deconstruct the standards and decide what are the most important standards and content to master.
While the challenges are significant, we will not lead substantial and important education change until we confront the “teaching to the test culture” that is responsible for much of the mediocrity.